Unhistorical thinking

The Germans often consider Americans as a people to be either uninformed or uninterested in their own history, and equally uninformed about the recent history of given situations, allowing them to make decisions only based on the present. Americans appear to not think things through, not thoroughly. They can appear to Germans as Dünnbrettbohrer, literally people who only drill through the thinnest of boards.

From the German perspective their perception is not false. It’s what is behind the German cliché that Die Amerikaner gehen mit dem Kopf durch die Wand, that Americans try to go through the wall with their heads, meaning forcing solutions in situations which they have not fully understood.

But are Americans really so un- or a-historical? Partly, yes. I think of the region in which I grew up and the people there, me included. Philadelphia. Many of the most dramatic events of the American Revolutionary War against England took place in and around Philadelphia. Independence Hall in downtown Philadelphia is very well known and visited every summer by countless Americans and guests from other countries.

It is where the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution were drafted, debated, passed and signed. Philadelphia was the capital of the insurrection, Independence Hall the meeting point of the conspirators.

Several critical battles took place in the area. On September 11, 1777 British troops defeated the colonists under George Washington at the Battle of Brandywine. Two weeks later, on September 26, Philadelphia was conceded to the British under General Charles Cornwallis.

On that day Washington and his troops counterattacked in Germantown, roughly five miles north of Philadelphia, against just under ten thousand British soldiers. It was an attack by night, from four different directions, with the hope of forcing a quick surrender. Because communications among four groups broke down, and due to shortages of munitions, the attack failed. Washington and his men were pushed back to White Marsh.

There, between December 5th and 8th, British troops pursued and attacked the revolutionaries several times. General Howe had hoped to end the war before the winter had set in. Washington‘s men held, though. The redcoats pulled back into Philadelphia. Washington and his troops moved into nearby Valley Forge.

But how many natives of the Philadelphia area are familiar with these events? I certainly did not hear of them during grammar and high school. I don’t recall any school trips to the battlegrounds or to a museum. Nor did my parents interest us six children in them. Nor have I ever seen a documentary film on television about those battles in and around Philadelphia, my home region.

Why? Perhaps because the United States and England (UK) have been close allies in two world wars. Perhaps we Americans don‘t like reliving bad old times. Perhaps because the events, regardless of how momentous, go back to the 18th century, long before any of my ancestors immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland, Scotland and primarily from Germany. That part of American history was not a part of their history.

If Americans indeed have a less developed sense of history than the Germans, maybe because change in American history and culture is so ever-present. Maybe Americans, in comparison to Germans, are more tolerant of – open and willing – to embrace change, to drive change. 

The momentous decision in and of itself to immigrate to America, to leave the homeland behind, makes almost every other decision in life seem far less dramatic. Change is less intimidating to Americans. On the contrary, the more change is accepted as a fact of life, the less relevant are the past and continuity with the past, and all that much more important it is to be able and willing to adapt to new situations.